Dickey named NL Cy Young

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Dickey named NL Cy Young

NEW YORK (AP) -- R.A. Dickey languished in the minors for 14 years, bouncing from one team to another before finally perfecting that perplexing knuckleball that made him a major league star.

David Price was the top pick in the draft and an ace by age 25, throwing 98 mph heat with a left arm live enough to make the most hardened scout sing.

Raised only 34 miles apart in central Tennessee, Dickey and Price won baseball's Cy Young awards on Wednesday - one by a wide margin, the other in a tight vote.

Two paths to the pantheon of pitching have rarely been more different.

''Isn't that awesome?'' said Dickey, the first knuckleballer to win a Cy Young. ''It just shows you there's not just one way to do it, and it gives hope to a lot of people.''

Dickey said he jumped up and yelled in excitement, scaring one of his kids, when he saw on television that Price edged Justin Verlander for the American League prize. Both winners are represented by Bo McKinnis, who watched the announcements with Dickey at his home in Nashville, Tenn.

''I guess we can call him Cy agent now,'' Price quipped on a conference call.

The hard-throwing lefty barely beat out Verlander in balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, preventing the Detroit Tigers' ace from winning consecutive Cy Youngs.

Runner-up two years ago, Price was the pick this time. He received 14 of 28 first-place votes and finished with 153 points to 149 for Verlander, chosen first on 13 ballots.

''It means a lot,'' Price said. ''It's something that I'll always have. It's something that they can't take away from me.''

Other than a 1969 tie between Mike Cuellar and Denny McLain, it was the closest race in the history of the AL award.

Rays closer Fernando Rodney got the other first-place vote and came in fifth.

The 38-year-old Dickey was listed first on 27 of 32 National League ballots and totaled 209 points, 113 more than 2011 winner Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Washington lefty Gio Gonzalez finished third.

Cincinnati right-hander Johnny Cueto and Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel each received a first-place vote, as did Gonzalez. Kershaw had two.

Dickey joined Dwight Gooden (1985) and three-time winner Tom Seaver as the only Mets to win the award. The right-hander went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA, making him the club's first 20-game winner since Frank Viola in 1990, and became the first major leaguer in 24 years to throw consecutive one-hitters.

Perhaps most impressive, Dickey did it all during a season when the fourth-place Mets finished 74-88.

''It just feels good all over,'' he said on MLB Network.

Dickey switched from conventional pitcher to full-time knuckleballer in a last-ditch effort to save his career. It took him years to finally master the floating, darting pitch, which he often throws harder (around 80 mph) and with more precision than almost anyone who used it before him.

''I knew what I was going to be up against in some regard when I embraced this pitch,'' Dickey said.

He was the first cut at Mets spring training in 2010 but earned a spot in the big league rotation later that season and blossomed into a dominant All-Star this year. He led the NL in strikeouts (230), innings (233 2-3), complete games (five) and shutouts (three) - pitching through an abdominal injury most of the way.

''I am not a self-made man by any stretch of the imagination,'' Dickey said. ''The height of this story, it's mind-blowing to me, it really is.''

A member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team and a first-round draft pick out of Tennessee, Dickey was devastated when the Texas Rangers reduced their signing-bonus offer from more than 800,000 to 75,000 after they discovered during a physical that he was missing a major ligament in his pitching elbow.

Undeterred, perseverance got him to the big leagues anyway. When he failed, the knuckleball brought him back.

Among those he thanked ceaselessly for helping him on that long and winding road to success were all his proud knuckleball mentors, including Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro.

''It brings a real degree of legitimacy I think to the knuckleball fraternity and I'm glad to represent them and I'm certainly grateful to all those guys,'' Dickey said. ''This was a victory for all of us.''

Dickey said he received 127 text messages and 35-40 phone calls in the moments immediately following the Cy Young announcement.

The only call he took was from Niekro, a 318-game winner from 1964-87. The first texts Dickey responded to were from Wakefield and Hough.

''Most well-deserved,'' Niekro said in a comment provided by the Hall of Fame. ''I'm super proud of him, as a pitcher and as an individual.''

Dickey has one year left on his contract at 5.25 million and New York general manager Sandy Alderson has said signing the pitcher to a multiyear deal is one of his top offseason priorities. Alderson, however, would not rule out trading his unlikely ace.

''I believe the Mets are going to be a lot better and I want to be part of the solution,'' Dickey said, adding that he hopes the sides can strike a deal and he'd be happy to end his career in New York.

''I want to be loyal to an organization that's given me an opportunity,'' he said. ''At the same time, you don't want to be taken advantage of. I've been on that side of it, too, as a player.''

Price went 20-5 to tie Jered Weaver for the American League lead in victories and winning percentage. The 27-year-old lefty had the lowest ERA at 2.56 and finished sixth in strikeouts with 205.

Verlander, also the league MVP a year ago, followed that up by going 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA and pitching the Detroit Tigers to the World Series. He led the majors in strikeouts (239), innings (238 1-3) and complete games (six).

Price tossed 211 innings in 31 starts, while Verlander made 33. One factor that could have swung some votes, however, was this: Price faced stiffer competition in the rugged AL East than Verlander did in the AL Central.

''I guess it's a blessing and a curse at the same time,'' Price said. ''There's not an easy out in the lineups every game. It feels like a postseason game.''

The No. 1 pick in the 2007 amateur draft out of Vanderbilt, Price reached the majors the following year and has made three straight All-Star teams.

Despite going 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 2010, he finished a distant second in Cy Young voting to Felix Hernandez, who won only 13 games for last-place Seattle but dominated most other statistical categories that year.

The two MVP awards will be announced Thursday. Verlander's teammate, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, is a leading contender in the American League.

NOTES: The last AL pitcher to win back-to-back Cy Youngs was Boston's Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000. San Francisco RHP Tim Lincecum did it in the National League in 2008-09. ... Price and Dickey became the fourth pair of Cy Young winners born in the same state, according to STATS. The others were Jim Lonborg and Mike McCormick in 1967 (California), Viola and Orel Hershiser in 1988 (New York) and Pat Hentgen and John Smoltz in 1996 (Michigan). ... Niekro and his brother, Joe, both finished second in Cy Young voting, as did fellow knuckleballer Wilbur Wood.

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

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USA TODAY

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

This is slowly becoming more like Willson Contreras’ team, whether or not the Cubs add a veteran catcher like Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline. Yadier Molina took the in-game, All-Star photo of Nelson Cruz and Joe West, but Contreras is coming for moments like that, too.

In a Cubs clubhouse filled with calm, serious young players who were fast-tracked to Wrigleyville, Contreras is the one who got left exposed in the Rule 5 draft at the 2014 winter meetings and spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut.

As much as the Cubs needed that ice-cold demeanor from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to end the 108-year hex, they will use Contreras’ fire to try to win the World Series again.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras said. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”

The Cubs flipped a switch after the All-Star break, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves and moving to within one game of the Milwaukee Brewers, their play screaming at Theo Epstein’s front office to keep buying. Contreras caught the first 45 innings of that six-game winning streak where the rotation finally clicked and hit .409 (9-for-22) with two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs on that road trip.

Contreras is a power source when a 49-45 team talks about going on a run and the defending World Series champs point to all this room to grow in the future. The model will be staring at Contreras this weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs try to keep the St. Louis Cardinals down (46-49) and give their front office something to think about (sell?) between now and July 31.

“We look at Yadier Molina,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “We know that he’s just an intelligent baseball player. I always try to remind Willson: 'That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, making you not only a threat offensively and defensively, but with your mind.'

“He’s always listening. He wants to learn. He plays with high intensity, high emotion. I always challenge him to be a smart player. That’s the best compliment you can get.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

After a disappointing first half where it looked like the vaunted pitching infrastructure might collapse — and veteran catcher Miguel Montero went on an epic rant that could have foretold a divided clubhouse in the second half — Contreras seemed to be in the middle of everything.

With Contreras behind the plate, Jake Arrieta began his salary drive toward a megadeal, Jose Quintana dazzled in his Cubs debut, Jon Lester recovered from the worst start of his career and John Lackey pitched well enough to delay any awkward conversations about going home to Texas instead of going to the bullpen.

“It was never tough,” said Arrieta, who has chopped his ERA from 5.44 to 4.17 since the middle of May. “It was just a matter of him getting to understand what we like to do as starters.

“He’s learned really quickly. He’s a tremendous athlete back there. I’m very confident that I can bury a curveball, or I can throw a changeup in the dirt, and I know that guy’s going to block it, even with a guy on first or second base. There’s not a ton of guys around the league that you can feel that much confidence in.

“Willson’s been great, and he’s only going to get better.”

Quintana, who breezed through seven scoreless innings against the Orioles (12 strikeouts, zero walks) after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox, gave this review of Contreras: “We were on the same page really quick, believe me. We talked before the game about how we want to go, how we want to call our pitches. He called a really good game, and I appreciate that.”

The Cubs will still be looking for a more-PC version of Montero, whether it’s someone like Avila, who works for his dad, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila, or circling back to an old target like Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (essentially off-limits to a division rival when the Brewers shopped him last summer). Dropping Montero in late June forced Victor Caratini up from Triple-A Iowa, making Contreras the senior catcher with a World Series ring at the age of 25.

“It’s almost like a quarterback in the NFL — there’s so much for them to absorb,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When you come from the minors to the major leagues as a catcher, most of the time in the minor leagues, you’re just developing physical abilities, physical tools, blocking, footwork, throwing, maybe pitcher/catcher relationship.

“But understanding the calling of a game — it’s hard to really develop that on the minor-league level. You have the manager, then maybe a pitching coach and there’s a lot going on. You don’t have that time to put into the game plan or to sit down and talk to this guy. It’s a little bit more superficial. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — it’s just the way it is.”

Whatever the Cubs do next, it will be with the idea of preserving Contreras in mind. Of the six big-league catchers qualified for the batting title, only two other catchers — World Series winners Buster Posey (.917) and Salvador Perez (.824) — have a higher OPS than Contreras (.822) so far this season. Among National League catchers, Contreras also has the most errors (13) and runners thrown out (19). Outside of Bryzzo, Contreras has the highest WAR (2.6) on the team.

If you think Contreras is emotional, energetic and entertaining now, just imagine what he will be like when he really knows what he’s doing.

“He asks all the right questions,” said Borzello, who won four World Series rings as a New York Yankees staffer. “We go over every game, and between every inning, we talk. We’re working in the right direction. I think he wants it as much as anyone I’ve ever been around.”

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Thursday's unit: the tight ends.

1. Will Zach Miller make the 53-man roster?

Miller didn’t play a single down from 2012-14, and has missed seven games in two seasons with the Bears, but he’s been productive when on the field: 110 targets, 81 receptions, 925 yards and nine touchdowns. But the Bears signed Dion Sims to an $18 million contract and then drafted Adam Shaheen in the second round of the draft, moves that seemingly put Miller in a precarious position heading into Bourbonnais. Not helping Miller’s case is the Lisfranc fracture he suffered last November, which kept him sidelined through OTAs and veteran minicamp in May and June. He’d be a valuable player for the Bears to keep around, but at the same time, training camp could be a perfect storm for Miller to be among the cuts.

“They’re going to cutting it close for training camp,” coach John Fox said of Miller (and Danny Trevathan) in June. “But right now they’re right on target and that’s kind of what we expected all offseason.”

2. What can we expect from Adam Shaheen?

Shaheen was among the bright spots during May and June, hardly looking like someone who played his college ball at Division II Ashland while going against NFL defenders. But those were just shorts-and-helmets practices without any contact, so it’d be premature to project anything about Shaheen off of them. The real test for Shaheen will be when he puts the pads on in Bourbonnais and gets his first experience with the physicality of the NFL after a few years of being head and shoulders — literally — above his competition in college. It’s unlikely Shaheen will live up to his “Baby Gronk” hype in Year 1, but if he handles training camp well, he could be a valuable red zone asset for Mike Glennon as a rookie. 

“You don’t know until you put the pads on,” Shaheen said. “That’s what I’m excited for.”

3. How productive can this unit be?

Between Sims — who had a career high four touchdowns last year with the Miami Dolphins — and Shaheen, the Bears have two new, big targets for an offense that tied for 24th in the NFL with 19 passing touchdowns a year ago. If Miller sticks around, this group would have enviable depth. But even if he doesn’t, the Bears liked what they saw from Brown last year (16 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD in six games). There are fewer questions about the tight ends heading into training camp than the receivers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Glennon leans on this unit, especially early in the season.